Shakespeare could use a new publicist. In the film Dead Poets Society, Mr. Keating (Robin Williams) attempts to inspire an appreciation for Shakespeare among his initially resistant students. First he lampoons the bloodless delivery of obscure language that too often dominates the popular imagination, and then he redirects their thinking by helping them to imagine “real people” delivering Shakespeare’s lines. The scene plays out for comedic effect (such as by imitating John Wayne in MacBeth), but the essential point is sound: Shakespeare’s plays were meant to be performed, and not merely recited; they were written in the living language of his day, and in the main, it is a language not far removed from that spoken today. All that modern viewers need to bridge the gap is a credible performance, rather than an affected imitation of one. Over the last two decades, no one has done more to provide this than Kenneth Branagh.
Before the invention of cinema, the stage was the only medium available for the performance of drama. Many strove to provide as much realism as was possible (and legally permissible) to a stage performance, but in the end technical considerations demanded certain conventions. Acoustics required the delivery of lines in tones that allowed everyone in the theatre to hear what was said; similarly, broad gestures were adopted because subtler expressions could not be seen in the back half of the audience. As has always been the case, artists have struggled to make the best of their medium in the face of its limitations.
All art forms develop their conventions, and with the passage of time, habits can become sacrosanct. In the early years of cinema, the availability of close-ups, and later of recorded sound, rendered some of these conventions obsolete, and yet they endured far longer than was necessary. In part this happened because film was a new medium, and it was creating its own conventions gradually; also, because the first film actors were stage actors by training, and these were the techniques they had learned. Others conventions endured because the techniques that were necessary on stage were mistaken for the artistry in acting. It took time for subtler expressions, more realistic gestures and varied spoken tones to become accepted as a new norm.
It took time in popular film, but it took even longer with filmed versions of Shakespeare’s plays. The fact that these plays had lived on the stage for several centuries seemed to impose the conventions of the stage upon films made from famous plays. It was as if the audience expected to replicate, as closely as possible, the experience of watching a play when seeing a film adapted from the stage; or at least, that the filmmakers so interpreted the audience’s expectations. Many of the contrivances of stagecraft are unnecessary on film, however, and so they seem doubly contrived. This contributed greatly to the popular image of Shakespearean performances as dull, affected and bloodless. To reach an audience beyond the cognoscenti who already love Shakespeare’s work, an approach was needed that expressed the passion and vibrancy of the original plays.
No filmmaker in the last generation has done this as effectively, as often, as Kenneth Branagh. Branagh has married a palpable love for Shakespeare’s work to a clearsighted appreciation for the opportunities afforded by film. He has been faithful to both in a series of film adaptations, operating on both sides of the camera. As an actor in Henry V, Much Ado About Nothing, Othello and Hamlet, and as the director of Henry V, Much Ado About Nothing, Hamlet and As You Like It, he has done more than anyone in recent memory to present Shakespeare to a wide audience.
Firstly, he has demonstrated a most profound respect for Shakespeare’s own words. It is in Shakespeare’s language, and not in the plots and characters of his plays, that his legacy truly lies. Without Shakespeare’s words, The Taming of the Shrew becomes 10 Things I Hate About You. This is not an illegitimate enterprise, but it is no longer Shakespeare. His words, whole or well-edited, are essential to a good Shakespeare production.
Branagh has gone a step further than most in preserving Shakespeare’s language. He directed and starred in an unabridged version of Hamlet, giving audiences a rare look at the full play. In his other films, an abridged script was used, but the redactions were performed in a careful manner that preserved both the context of the story and the sense of Shakespeare’s language. Such fidelity is vital if successful films are also meant to foster an appreciation for Shakespeare in a wider audience.
Secondly, he has given brilliant performances of his characters, and surrounded himself with other actors who have done the same. In this sense, a brilliant performance requires more than just a technically excellent delivery of Shakespeare’s lines; the actor must persuade the viewer that he is speaking naturally, creating the illusion that the words come from within. This is why Shakespearean films so often include the same actors: in addition to all of the other acting skills, they require an appreciation for the language “that passes show,” as Hamlet said. An actress playing Juliet, for example, must understand that the famous question “wherefore art thou Romeo?” means “Why, of all people, did you have to be Romeo of Montague?” and not “Where are you, my darling?” Without this understanding, she will not convince the audience and the performance will be flat.
Branagh’s films are filled with fine performances, and the exceptions are rare: Jack Lemmon in Hamlet and Keanu Reeves in Much Ado About Nothing. The first is a minor character, and the second is a knave, and so the damage is minimal. All others meet or exceed the demands of their roles, and have therefore contributed to a most persuasive performance in general. This persuasiveness is the most important tool in inducing an audience to engage in a willing suspension of disbelief.
It is not the only tool, however. Visually, audiences have become far more sophisticated since the early days of cinema. No matter how fanciful the story may be, it must look real to an audience if the producers want the audience to give it a chance. Gone are the days when a successful film can look like a stage presentation. Low-budget hits have, in fact, gone in the opposite direction, seeming to be nothing more than a home movie. To be accessible, a film must create a credible illusion of reality.
With a possible exception in As You Like It, all of Branagh’s films accomplish this feat admirably. Henry V is set in its proper historical context, and some minor quibbles aside, it looks as it should. Othello is similarly faithful to its proper period. Hamlet and Much Ado About Nothing have both been shifted to the nineteenth century, but with an attention to detail that leaves them unimpeachable. There is nothing in these productions to pull the viewer out of context and proclaim that it is just a story.
As You Like It is a bit different. It is much more whimsical, and less effort was made to create the illusion of reality. Brian Blessed is a very fine actor and a splendid part of every cast that has included him, but he was slightly more persuasive as the leader of the Gungans in Star Wars: Episode I than he was as a Japanese lord in As You Like It. This film is clearly more stylized than Branagh’s other films, but not so radically stylized as Julie Taymor’s Titus. Perhaps, in its own way, this film has contributed to Branagh’s efforts to expand Shakespeare’s audience by appealing to a crowd more centered in the visual arts.
Kenneth Branagh was not the first filmmaker to engage the many virtues of cinema to bring Shakespeare to a wider audience. Franco Zeffirelli did it a generation before with his 1968 version of Romeo and Juliet. Perhaps that film is roughly the equal of any one of Branagh’s films; Branagh, however, has presented two tragedies, two comedies and a history play. Judging from both quantity and quality, Branagh is the leading popularizer of Shakespeare in this generation, and possibly of the last century.
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